The good, bad and ugly of Twitter’s TNF debut

We got a glimpse into the future of sports broadcasting on Thursday night. No, it was more like a jolt into the present day, abrupt but welcomed.

The broadcast of the New York Jets’ win over the Buffalo Bills was the first game in league history to be “tri-cast” and the first to be live-streamed on a social media platform. In addition to CBS and the NFL Network, Twitter carried the game for free.

It was not the first time the Jets were part of sports broadcasting history. They also played in ABC’s first official Monday Night Football game in Cleveland in 1970. The idea of moving an NFL game off Sunday was radical in that era, whereas now it’s all too common, as the emergence of Thursday and late-season Saturday games are completely different than even 15 years ago.

But even more futuristic is the notion that someday, we won’t watch live sports on television screens at all, but on our smartphones.

I watched the Jets-Bills game on Twitter to see how the experience would be. There was room for improvement, but I was impressed nonetheless.

For starters, the picture quality was unquestionably good. There was never fuzz or poor sound. But it would be an institutional failure if there were. After all, this is no pirating site. It’s the 10th-most visited site in the world and it paid $10 million for the rights to 10 games this season. So to laud the crystal-clear picture is to set a low bar.

I wasn’t happy with all the technical aspects, though. As the Bills’ offense lined up for a play on their first drive, I checked my phone and saw a few notifications I wish I hadn’t. First, one from our staff group chat: my boss, Matt Barbato, asking “Why is there no safety help???” Then, to confirm my worries – ESPN’s notification that Bills WR Marquise Goodwin had scored an 84-yard touchdown.

A screengrab of Friday morning, already set up for next week's game between Houston and New England.
A screengrab of Friday morning, already set up for next week’s game between Houston and New England.

Eyes wide, I looked back up to the screen just as Tyrod Taylor received the snap. Knowing what was about to happen did not make watching Darrelle Revis getting burned any less painful, but rather, the information only frustrated me more. This lag was not what I was expecting out of Twitter.

But thankfully, I experienced little lag after that, judging by the timing of my ESPN scoring notifications compared to the stream. All in all, the video streaming itself was no issue.

Then there was the experience of having a live Twitter feed on the same screen as the video. If you like to follow Twitter during the game, then you would find this a nice addition. But the stream was made up of anyone using the #TNF hashtag or anyone tweeting right from the homepage. If they had curated tweets from Jets and Bills beat writers, for example, my experience would have been much richer. (The powers that be even could have had celebrity Jets fan Kevin James live-tweet as well. He was at the game, and CBS would have jumped on another way to promote his new sitcom. They oughta pay me for these ideas.)

But who needs actual NFL journalists when everyone’s a football expert? During the broadcast, I was treated to many insightful, articulate, sane and unprovocative messages from Twitter’s finest:

The first tweet, whether tagged #TNF on purpose or out of confusion, most likely refers to the University of Houston’s football game being played at the same time. I can’t try to explain or defend the rest of these. co-editor-in-chief Andrew Wallenstein had a point when he tweeted that Twitter’s feed was “uncompelling” as long as it lacked any “meaningful creation.” I was thinking the same thing, just less eloquently.

Another idea I wish I could take sole credit for:

Is this the dictionary definition of a first world problem? Maybe. But it’s a great point at the same time. When I clicked on my notifications tab, I was whisked away from the stream to the notifications page. “Well, what did you expect, idiot?” you ask me, to which I have no good retort. But the screen setup was not truly user-friendly or responsive. My video even paused when I clicked on a tweet to expand its size on the page, although I don’t recall if this happened each time or only for some instances.

Either way, it’s proof that the live-football-on-Twitter experience is still in its nascent stages, far from a finished product. It may be the way of the future, and for nine more games this season it’s the way of the present. Some tinkering will do it wonders.

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